On Peaches, Hiccups, and Fish, or Finding Talismans

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we work so hard trying to get it all right, but it already is alright.

Yesterday opened with a rejection that sounded at first like an acceptance, like a win, a big one. And also, a second rejection. I don’t usually get two literary journal rejections back-to-back on a Monday morning, with one of them needing to be re-read four times just to make sure. As the day unfolded, my Monday also gifted me with two “hiccups,” which involved each child texting me at work – simultaneously – with different issues that needed some urgent and ongoing consideration.

I write a lot about transitions here. I felt as though, at the end of August, I was properly girding myself for the emotions of the next transition. Moving my daughter into a room in a house she’d be sharing with several other students, her first non-dorm college living experience. Moving into my son’s senior year, beginning with the last orchestra camp and the last first day of high school.

I’ve reminded myself that at this point, life is not calm vs. storm, but really just water. A living, breathing ocean with quiet waves and ravenous storms and everything in between. It is characterized by constant movement. And with this insight I had prepared myself for a new season of shift and change, ebb and flow.

Yet I wonder sometimes, what do fish notice, and how does a storm feel deep below the waves? Is it only churn and chop near the surface?

blue discus fish
Photo by Lone Jensen on Pexels.com

On Sunday I blanched peaches in advance of jam-making. I was thinking about the particular and curious satisfaction of September’s liminality, that glorious, tumultuous in-between summer and fall place, a place where little scraps of peace, that feel at once like summer and fall, fall into place.

I stood at the sink gently pushing away the skin from the blushing fruit beneath my thumbs, and I found cherished calm there. I thought, maybe Love does that, loving and being loved. Maybe it makes it easier to find those quiet depths even when the rest of the world is topsy-turvy, even when the children are molding themselves to the shape of new expectations, and even when an avalanche of new transitions and uncertainty waits up ahead for me as well.

I think, I want to remember this, I want to remember the feeling.

I wanted Sunday’s interlude with peaches to be more than a lovely distraction. I wanted the memory of calm to be accessible later, to protect me from the seemingly omnipresent protective anxiety about my children I wear like a talisman.

I need a talisman to protect me from my talisman.

I wear worry like a tattooed eye warding off evil. I fret about catastrophe I hope to keep at bay by paying attention, somehow, to everything that might go wrong, large and small, money, the future, my impending move, how my view of myself will necessarily morph once I am no longer mothering in the same way.

I can imagine it all, and I can’t.

Though it may be something of an illusion, I think that if I spend time worrying about things now, I might be able to shape myself to change and new with some alacrity, if I’m paying attention in all the right ways to all the right things.

As my Monday progressed, post-lunchtime hiccups, I did my best to troubleshoot while staying focused at work; to assess and reassess once home; to weigh pros and cons; to manage the easier hiccup and consider and second guess the other, which was really quite a bit more than a hiccup; and to try and bury the popped-balloon anguish instilled by the rejection that opened with we’d like to congratulate instead of unfortunately. I tried to pay attention to all the right things in all the right ways.

At one point, my son noted, you’re handling this all really well. Though it was a wonderful compliment, it was also impossible for me not to see this observation in contrast to the immediate post-divorce years, when all the juggling and figuring out and managing felt crushing, and I maybe did not handle it all really well, maybe not at all, surely not often enough.

And enough. Enough. That word rises to the surface again and again and it isn’t a gentle rising to the surface like a little bubble rises. It’s a thrust generated by a seismic event on the ocean floor that disturbs the calm in the depths, causes destruction at the surface.

Enough is one of the cruelest words in the lexicon of identity because it is both quake and seismograph.

But, my evening progressed. I worked. I worked with my Love on tasks that wanted doing. I shaped myself to a purpose with recognizable dimensions and did it alongside someone I would pretty much do anything alongside of. I came home, put the final touches on whatever managing of hiccups/not-hiccups I could. I still felt the chop and churn of enoughness and not-enoughness. I didn’t remember what I wanted to about the peaches. Still, it was quite impossible to not feel loved. It was impossible to resist the perpetual buoy of it all, and I don’t really know anything that serves as greater protection against evil than that.

Love, Cath

On the Way We Move Through the World

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the way we see ourselves helps, sometimes it hurts.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first-born, my daughter, I developed a vision of myself, of the way I would move through my pregnancy. I imagined all that good, earthy, powerful woman-hood stuff and wanted to be infused with a grace and a centeredness that I hadn’t possessed before. I wanted to be transformed. Of course, I was transformed, but not the way I imagined. As my body changed, I grew to be clumsier and more awkward than ever. As much as I wanted to bond with my unborn infant, I often felt attacked by an unknown entity that was devouring me, making me feel fatigued, nauseous. I usually did not feel beautiful and earthy. Looking back, everything I felt was entirely normal. Of course all my experiences felt foreign and confusing; I’d never been pregnant before. And in all the ungainly heft of it, there were moments, hours that sometimes stretched into days, where I did feel somewhat miraculous. And the first time I felt a little nudge from my kiddo, elbow or foot, I’m not sure which, I did feel a crazy inexplicable bond begin to grow. I could call this entity in me a person, but a living creature gestating inside of you doesn’t always feel like a future someone in your life the first time around. So the bond I’m speaking of isn’t like the bond you feel with a human walking around outside your body. When my daughter was born and was placed in my arms, that which had long been other but part of me became something else. Her. Whole. I remember my first thought: Oh! If I had only known it was you. . . .

She was a universe unto herself. One that would depend on me and her father for everything. Of course, the entire time that she was incubating in me, I was developing a range of ideas about what kind of mother I would be. And I felt just as ungainly and confused learning how to parent as I did learning how to be pregnant. I didn’t have any sort of instinctual gift. I questioned every single instinct I did have. I never gained a sustained confidence in my abilities as a caregiver, moral instructor, spiritual advisor, shaper of another human’s psyche. And it didn’t become any clearer once my son was born. The territory shifted. There were two of them. And any ideas I had of myself as a mother once again were turned on their head, because this other little person needed a different me than the first one did in many ways. Once again my expectations of how I would walk through motherhood, of how to parent this little brood, butted up against the realities of doing the job. To be honest, they still do. Everything changes, all the time, and every skill you possess as a person and parent is called upon as your children change and as the world changes and as their world changes and you cannot keep up, not ever, but you simply have to keep trying to make sense of it. I am still not the mother I imagined I would be. To be honest, I’m still not the mother I hoped I’d be. She’s still out there, a version of me who will know and say and do the right things at the right time, and sometimes she and I inhabit the same space and we do okay.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Our ideas about who we are and who we want to be are perpetually shifting as the terrain shifts beneath our feet, as people exit our lives, or enter. As we gain new experiences. As we leave pasts behind and enter new spaces. We envision ourselves in a certain, idealized way. In every vision I’ve had of how I want to be, how I expected to exist in the world, I always see this version of myself as graceful. I’ve always wanted to possess physical grace. As a child I desperately wanted to take ballet lessons. One Halloween I got to dress up like a ballerina and I was ecstatic. Being an actual ballerina was not in the cards, but that idea of confidence, poise, grace – it stayed with me, and I always wondered how it would have changed me. Would what seems like natural clumsiness have evaporated in a ballet studio? Would I be less likely to run into furniture, trip on sidewalk cracks, stub toes, tumble into garden mishaps that involve crucifixion via rose thorns through my palm?

I’ve imagined what it might look like to walk through my life with poise and confidence. I still envision myself in a manner I haven’t inhabited. I do not feel possessed by a sense of calm, by accumulated wisdom, by a carefully curated and fully-realized perspective, as I had hoped to be at this point in my life. Not every day. Not most moments. But sometimes. Sometimes we inhabit the same space, she and I, and we do okay.

I don’t know if it is good or bad, to have this vision of how we’d like to be. Are we setting ourselves up for failure? Or have we given ourselves realistic ideas of self to aim for? I guess it depends on our vision. Maybe grace and wisdom are out of reach most days, but who knows?

Love, Cath

Heart-Sore and Healing: On Watching Your Children Fly

By Catherine DiMercurio

Suddenly I want to bake a pie full of peaches and sugar because my heart is sore, sore in the steady sharp low hum manner of a hangnail or a paper cut straight through the meat of your thumb pad. Sore, because I know home is not the same anymore, but for all the right reasons. Right, because it was time, time for her to move to the next part, not far in miles but autonomy isn’t measured that way. Just college, not really moving out but still, away and beyond into all the next things. And here, at home, the not knowing, what you ate for breakfast, and how is that book you are reading, and did you make it home okay. And okay, it’s not just her, because he now too wears his new independence so casually, as if it is just a piece of paper that says he can drive without me, the real license hasn’t even arrived in the mail yet. But off he goes, and did you make it there okay? Please be okay, and okay, it’s more than a hangnail or a paper cut sometimes.

Do you know what it costs? We talk about raising children and I think of the way bread dough expands to fill the available space and more. It’s only air, pulling off that miracle, the same as the breath in our lungs. And by the way, it costs everything. It costs everything to have every first be one step closer to all the goodbyes, it costs your whole heart and more.

This is what we signed up for, and we knew it would be tough, but you never know all the ways it will hurt, just like we never know all the ways it expands us. I would do it all over again because I know. I would because I know her, I know him, but if we didn’t, if someone painted us a picture and depicted exactly how much it would hurt us and exactly how much it would lift us, would we believe it? Would we believe a heart could survive that much expansion and contraction, heaving and sundering and cracking like an overfilled pie crust broken apart by something as slight and brutal as steam?

I will bake the pie after I buy a peck of overripe peaches from the farmer’s market, a little bruised and bursting through their own skins.

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Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

I don’t recommend condensing into the space of a few days the dropping off of one child at college, and the testing and licensing of the other for driving. There is so much good in it, I know that. They are strong and full of everything they need to be where they are. I can take little credit for this. I see how they were born with the spirit and the strength, always ready for the next part, even the times when they didn’t know they were. Maybe I was too. Maybe I’m ready for the next part too, even when I don’t know I am. Even when the heart is bruised and sore, growing and bursting and breaking. How many times do we mend ourselves, with something as slight and brutal as breath?

Labors of Love

By Catherine DiMercurio

I’ve been away for a bit, working on novel revisions and searching for places to submit my manuscript. The phrase “labor of love” comes to mind, and “labor” surfaces for me in the context of both birthing and work. Writers often speak of their work in this way, as if the piece they have written is offspring, a living, breathing thing that they have given birth and breath to, nurtured from a tiny kernel of an idea into maturity. It is easy to do, even as a parent of an actual living, breathing thing that I have nurtured from a tiny kernel of an idea (“let’s have a baby!”) into maturity, maturity as in, she has turned eighteen and is about to graduate from high school, about to leave this home and make a new one. These various notions of labor, and the fruit it bears, are joined right now in my mind.

Confluence and Connotation

Because of this intertwining, the coming together of my emotions about my daughter graduating at the same time I was nurturing into maturity the novel, early drafts of this post centered on the notion of confluence. I was specifically thinking about the way emotionally weighted or significant things seem to happen at the same time in our lives. I considered the way sorrows pool, floods of grief crash together, or odd jumbles of joy seem to happen all at once and you wonder when is it going to all fall apart because life has taught you that it often does. But something about this felt off to me and I spent some time thinking about “confluence.” Though it originally entered into my brain in terms of the way things come together, I hadn’t really been thinking of the geographic imagery and understanding of the word. The most common usage focuses on the flowing together of two or more bodies of water at a certain point to form a single channel. I realized I had the right word but had originally latched on to the wrong connotation.

So now I am thinking about the power of confluence, the force of these two strong rivers flowing together. Sometimes you can see it happening, this coming together of powerful things in your life, but you don’t know what to do about it. You sense the importance but haven’t yet found a way to inhabit it. I see myself with my hand outstretched. I’m reaching for the next part, my next part (in terms of writing and also, whatever else life becomes after my home no longer includes my children living in it). At the same time, I’m holding on ferociously to those two children, wanting to keep them with me, safe and sound (the illusion being that I have the power to protect them), and wanting also to be strong enough to open my arms and let them go. And they, too, are both holding on and reaching forward. I wonder sometimes if the best thing to do is enter the current and see where it takes me, because I can’t yet see how I can harness the power of the emotions that this transition, this confluence, is churning up, and I also feel that I can’t hold on at the shore much longer, the current is already sweeping us up in these changes and inevitably we will be swept up and away and forward.

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Photo by NMQ on Pexels.com

I wonder, too, how do I keep myself as a safe place on the shore when they need refuge from the churn of their own lives as they get older? How do I maintain that space and at the same time see where life takes me?

Mistake Making

In a way, this post is about mistakes and false starts, as I try to harness language, sometimes the wrong language, sometimes the right language in the wrong way, to convey the bewildering array of emotions and thoughts that gather around me and inhabit me in the midst of this transition. Metaphor feels like the only tool to make sense of it all but it merely hints at the real, attempts to show with linguistic equations how the heart and mind heave and ache and reach in currents of memories, fears, joys, wishes.

But life is mistakes and false starts. It is memory and wish, it’s reaching back and vaulting forward, storm and sanctuary, river and shore, and maybe all I’m trying to do here is tell my daughter as she graduates and prepares for the next phase in her life, that life will be this way. Life might be a clear day after the rain or it might be the rain but no matter what it is, no matter what metaphors are used to make sense of it, the safe place I’ve built for her is always there, in every memory made together, every penny-tossed fountain wish she and I have cast, side by side. We’ve built it already and it isn’t going anywhere.

Wishing you safety in storms, laughter in rain, and the wisdom to appreciate the sun on your face every time the clouds part.

Love, Cath

 

On Mothering and Metabolism

By Catherine DiMercurio

I circled around this blank page for a while, looking for a place to land. The week percolated with activity and emotion and I found myself trying to keep up and keep catching my breath. It was like tripping and falling. There’s a slow motion moment where it feels like you should be able to stop the tumbling but the momentum already has a grip.

This week began (or last week ended) with Mother’s Day. I spent a quiet morning with my children, then traveled an hour and a half north to visit with my mother, father, and a handful of sisters.

In the days that followed, I dealt with the irritation of a broken dryer and the frustration that comes with rearranging my work schedule to accommodate a repair, which, incidentally remains incomplete. The dryer is 19 years old. Parts were ordered. And now we wait.

That night, my daughter had an away soccer game. It was one of the only games this season that I did not attend. Luckily her father was there, because my daughter had a severe allergic reaction that landed her in the emergency room. I met them at the urgent care clinic where he had taken her, and where she passed out, and where EMS was arriving. She was only out for a moment, and they were assessing her vitals. Everything was stabilizing, the two doses of Benadryl—one administered by her father and one, intravenously, by the EMT—had taken care of her hives, and her throat was no longer feeling tight. She did not need epinephrine. At the hospital, we were joined by her boyfriend and his mother. We circled my daughter’s bed, waiting for her to be seen. After about 3 hours, the attending physician reviewed her chart and told us to follow up with her doctor and an allergist. (Obviously!) There were no answers, which I didn’t really expect. Many things could have triggered the hives. The passing out, within the realm of everything that was happening to her body, was not a concern to the attending, but certainly something to keep an eye on. We returned home, exhausted and perplexed.

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Photo by Pok Rie on Pexels.com

This day tumbled into the next—a promotion at work, a vet visit, prom again (my daughter and her boyfriend had already attended her school’s prom, and now they were off to his), and my son preparing for his first job interview. His sixteenth birthday is next week.

Exhausted and perplexed, I suppose, are the emotions that linger after this week of highs and lows, some of which I found I could not yet wrap words around, as they are still percolating in their raw and formless way, waiting for me. I find myself struggling to take it all in and comprehend it. I’ve been using the word “metabolize” frequently lately in this context, feeling as though life is often comprised of ingesting this array of experience and emotion. Metabolizing it all consists of gleaning what wisdom and knowledge I can, and crying or laughing the rest of it away, to make room for the next round. This week has been full of lessons. I became aware, for instance, that learning what it means to let other people in to the lives of my children is not something that happens all by itself, quietly, in the background. It is something I became aware of as the week unfolded and was at times overwhelming, though inherently and wonderfully positive. Good things take time to be metabolized too, not just the tough stuff. I chew on things. I process slowly. I think a lot, some say overthink, but it’s more that I’m turning it all over in my mind, looking at all the subtle contours, thinking about it all the same way lake water and sediment erode and soften beach glass or stone.

I’m still making sense of things this week, so I’m going to do something different right now and leave you with this, a poem I drafted not too long ago while I was getting my MFA, and which I’ve pulled out recently to reexamine and revise. I’ll be taking a couple of weeks off after this post. I’m in the middle of novel revisions again, trying to polish and tighten in time to submit, by the end of the month, to a contest for “older published writers of fiction.” I hope you enjoy the poem. It’s about mothering, which seems appropriate in the context of this week and this post.

Mine

The moon tugs oceans of grief.

In the wet sand in-between place, I can begin to see what’s mine.

What isn’t.

In between history and anguish, my failures imprint themselves.

When I say this is my daughter,

What I mean is that she is the one who tore through me once.

But to use the possessive to describe this feral female, all rage and rangy and tangled but who still lopes near, as if to the porch for a saucer of milk and a scratch, well, that doesn’t make her mine.

When I say this is my son,

All I mean is that he is the one who slipped almost quietly into this world, from my world, quietly once in the early morning, too early, shallow breathing fish out of water boy.

But to use the possessive when describing this wild hidden one who stays close but not too close, like a secret thing whisper-peering out from behind a red milk crate left out back by the strawberry patch, well, that doesn’t make him mine.

Watching these two brooding ones ruminate on the way things broke, I don’t think they use the possessive either. I’m not theirs. I’m it.

The one who saw the fissures in the world and couldn’t stitch and mend fast enough or in the right places

Or the gaps were too big

Or the stuffing shook loose anyway.

Still I made sure there were porch and milk and crate and strawberries.

Still I broke apart

Still I found the feral and the fierce and the stillness.

Still I grasped us back to safety.

Nothing makes them mine.

But when they trot in through the back door I always leave open

They snuggle me in a big heap on the floor and we get to belong to each other at least

for a moment, a breath, and one more.

Please.

 

Love, Cath

Coming of Age: The Crisis vs. The Chrysalis

By Catherine DiMercurio

Who doesn’t love a good coming-of-age story? What if it’s your own, part two? What does it mean to be coming of age in middle age?

We all have a favorite story about a young person’s journey from adolescence into adulthood, from innocence to experience. In some stories, this time frame is condensed and the author focuses more on a coming-of-age experience, an episode, rather than a full transition from childhood to adulthood. The progenitor of the modern coming-of-age novel is the European bildungsroman, a novel of development or formation. The classic bildungsroman, such as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark (1915), or W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), typically takes this longer view. More modern coming-of-age stories, including J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), several of John Green’s novels, or the 2007 screenplay Juno by Diablo Cody, frequently examine a shorter time frame within the protagonist’s life. (Incidentally, my favorites from this list would be Lawrence, Cather, Salinger, and Cody—and there are so many more examples!)

I’m perpetually drawn to these types of novels (and films), and what I’ve noticed for a while are the parallels between coming-of-age stories and life in one’s 40s. The novel manuscript I’m currently revising was originally conceived as a mother-daughter story in which I wanted to explore this idea that we go through a second coming of age at this time in our lives, and that parenting teens while going through our own new evolution is a challenge not for the timid. While the novel itself metamorphosized into something else, the original idea has stayed with me. It has fluttered about several recent conversations I’ve had and is demanding to be seen and considered in more detail. I will certainly do that with more deliberateness in a new piece of fiction, but I wanted to give it a nod here as well.

Roles, Expectations, Responses

Like the characters in the works noted above, many of us in our 40s and 50s have the sense that we are outgrowing this current iteration of ourselves. Certainly our roles are shifting. Though the focus of our parenting has always been to nurture independence, the lessons now have a sense of urgency, because soon, those lessons will be put to the test. I find myself at times feeling like I’ve done a pretty good job, but then I suddenly only seeing what I think I left out.

I see my children transforming from youngsters to young adults, surprising me with their maturity one minute, or reminding me, in moments of fear or anxiety about their own journeys, that they are still children. They are still learning how to cope with a new set of rules. They now look like adults and are entering points in their lives where they will be increasingly independent, but at the same time, they are aware that everything is about to change. The safety net they’ve long enjoyed won’t be as readily available. The training wheels, as they say, are coming off.

And I’m in a similar position in terms of change. Parenting will look different after my kids leave home, but regardless of my role as a mother, I, like many people around this age, find myself thinking less about what I’ve achieved, and more about what’s been left undone, and what there might still be time to do. There are empty places within all of us that we thought would be filled by achievements, which, as it happens, maybe failed to materialize. Priorities shift. Gifts and talents we thought we possessed or have been honing haven’t exactly produced the results we expected, and we begin to wonder if we simply aren’t the person we thought we were. Sometimes too, the road we travel has unexpected twists or tragedies in store for us.

Consequently, just as instinctually as a caterpillar stops eating and anchors itself in order to spin a cocoon (if it’s a moth) or molts into a chrysalis (if it’s a butterfly), we start looking around us and looking ahead. What do we have to anchor ourselves to? And do we have time to do the undone things or to pivot and head out in a new direction? Complicating matters, at least for me, is the fact that I thought it would be different, that some of this should have come together by now, that there wouldn’t be so many unknowns at this point.

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The Gruesome Details

And consider this: inside the cocoon or chrysalis, the caterpillar actually digests itself. The process of transformation is a fairly vicious one. And so it is for anyone, regardless of age. While some life transitions are more obvious and easily recognized as a time of drastic evolution, any time in our lives can yield a new sort of coming-of-age experience. It’s never easy, and sometimes it looks as messy from the outside as all the metaphorical digesting of ourselves that’s happening on the inside. We hear the term midlife crisis often enough to make a joke of it, and think of a guy having a difficult time getting older and so he compensates with a sports car.

On a darker and often more realistic note though, we also often witness various forms of self-destruction or self-sabotage (substance abuse, walking out on a job or a marriage, or infidelity). In many ways all these behaviors are yoked to some instinctual desire to transform. But when you can’t see what’s happening, or feel you don’t have ways to cope, or the weight of a lifetime of accumulated expectation is too much, the vicious, painful transformation is itself transformed from a personal journey into one that pulls other people into its wake. This harm to the people around us is what truly makes it a crisis.

It Isn’t a Crisis It’s a Chrysalis

But the transformation on its own does not have to be a crisis, if what we are feeling can be recognized and named, respected and understood. It can instead be simply part of the life cycle, painful but necessary and normal, and beautiful both in process and result. If the permission to transform was a given, and we didn’t have to associate shame or a sense of failure with aging and adapting and responding to where we’ve been and where we’d like to go, fewer midlife crises would happen. We could simply embark on the next chrysalis stage in our lives.

The battle against expectations—self-imposed or otherwise—is equally pervasive at other points in our lives. I thought by now I’d find a job, be married, have kids, have a better job, be happier, etc., etc. I don’t strictly believe in the notion that coming of age happens once or twice in our lives. Circumstances—loss, death, divorce, illness, injuries, unexpectedly becoming a parent—all create a need to evolve, to imagine a new way of being in order to respond to how life has changed. Other developments in life are more decision-based (marriage, planning to be come a parent, seeking out a new job, etc.), and are prompted by a sense of readiness for the next phase. Despite this readiness, the transformation is still a process with its own challenges.

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Power In Perspective

Like most of my posts, this presents simply another way of looking at experiences many of us have. I think there is tremendous power in perspective. Looking at a natural need to transform and regarding it as a positive process instead of a crisis provides opportunity instead of generating anxiety, shame, or despair. If we can prepare ourselves in time, if we can be open to what is happening, we can enter into these processes and transformations with an open heart. We can talk about it with the people in our lives, discuss hopes and fears and expectations, and through honest conversation, mitigate the negative repercussions for the people around us as we move from one state of being to the next. It is natural for some to turn inward and want to handle things privately but if you shut out the people around you, they might not recognize you when you emerge once again.

Enjoy your chrysalis. Love, Cath

On Waiting and Letting Go

By Catherine DiMercurio

I woke on Sunday morning to the sound of raindrops pelting the window and the scrape of an ice-laden tree branch on the roof above my bedroom. All I wanted to do was pull the covers back over my head and ignore the worries about falling branches and icy roads. I braced myself for what was coming next—the assessment of whether it would be safe for my daughter to make the trip to Ann Arbor that she had planned for the day. And I knew that I had to let her decide for herself.

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My son woke up not long after I did. We drank our coffee and darted from window to window, noting the way the cars, fences, and tree branches were slicked with a layer of ice. The temperature hovered just about the freezing mark and it was unclear whether the pouring rain hitting the ice was building up another layer, or was melting it. The roads looked wet. A couple of limbs creaked free from tree trunks and crashed to the ground, the fine coating of ice shattering from the smaller branches, studded with leaf buds.

Risk Assessment

When my daughter woke up and I asked if I was still going to let her go, I avoided the question. I watched her retrace my steps window to window, taking in the same factors I had. On our phones we sought reports on social media from people who might have braved the roads already. We listened to the weatherman say that despite the rain, the roads could still by icy. My daughter suggests that she head out anyway, saying if things seem bad, she’ll turn around and come home. I know from experience that sometimes things don’t seem bad until you are already on the highway and the conditions are fine until they aren’t and you have to decide which is safer—proceeding to your destination or heading back the way you came.

I can’t decide if this is high-stakes parenting or not. Is her life at risk any more than any other time she gets behind the wheel, any more than mine is each time I brave a morning commute? Maybe it’s fine. Maybe it won’t get icier the closer she gets to Ann Arbor. Maybe some spots will be bad and doesn’t she have to learn to negotiate the conditions anyway?

It isn’t a stand-off we have at the front door with her making a plea to go and me deciding in that heartbeat whether to allow or forbid. We’ve had those before and this isn’t like that. I’m looking at an eighteen-year-old young woman who claims her readiness to handle changing conditions, and she’s looking at someone with a little more experience and some reasonable concerns about her safety. Significantly, I can tell she sees and respects this. “Be careful. Text me when you get there,” I say.

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Knowing that she made it there and back safely, that she was fine, in a way makes me feel that my heightened worrying was unnecessary. But I know the significance of the moment at the doorway, when we weren’t really sure how bad the conditions were, when she wondered if I would to forbid her to go, and when I didn’t.

As I waited for her text, I had the sense that I’d probably done the right thing. I had to let her make the decision on her own, when the consequences could be significant—I see in my head the car accident on the icy highway, the one that doesn’t happen, the semi unable to stop—because she’s going to have to make decisions like that again and again when she leaves home in the fall to attend college. I know all the decision-making we’d negotiated to this point, whether through careful conversations or door-slamming shouting matches, all brought us to this point. And I know this hasn’t been the first high-stakes moment.

Self-Aware Parenting

The difference this time is that I’m aware, in the moment, that I’m surrendering the decision-making, that it is a conscious, willful act of love and trust. As parents our entire existence is predicated on the notion that we are preparing our children to not need us. It’s all part of the longest goodbye ever, from the moment they begin to crawl.

Just the day before, I’d been in the car with my son, who will be sixteen in a month. He’s trying to get enough hours in to take the second segment of driver’s ed. It’ll be a few months before he gets his permit. It’s raining and he’s doing great, though visibility at times is lousy. Does he see that stop sign? Do I point it out? The micro decision-making is just as hard as the macro decision-making. It’s parenting inch by inch, breath by breath. Sometimes it feels like I’m falling off a cliff, waiting for a moment, an hour, or years, to see if the decision I made was the right one.

Go, Go, Go. Stop.

It sounds like I don’t give them enough credit. They are bright kids, possessing common sense along with intellectual and emotional intelligence. I do trust that. It is what allows me to say go and what keeps me from saying stop. It is the comfort I take in the waiting. At the same time, I know what the stakes are, large and small.

I’ve always erred on the side of being overprotective. It’s the way I’m wired. It takes intentional self-awareness to step out of this habit sometimes. My thinking is that I want the kids to leave our home having known what it feels like to be nurtured and cared for, but also having learned how to nurture and care for themselves. I’ll always wonder if I’ve gotten the balance right, and I’ll probably wait years to find the answer. It can be confusing, parenting during transitions like these, as your kids enter adulthood. It’s like being caught between seasons, a tree in full bud suddenly coated in April ice.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

 

 

Learning from Memory: The Parable of the Kite

By Catherine DiMercurio

As a mother, I find myself coming back to the lessons my own parents taught me. Rarely though do these lessons filter through my consciousness in verbal form. Rather, some memories return repeatedly enough that I wonder, why this, why now?

A Father-Daughter Moment

Sometimes the memories are so strong and come from so far back in my childhood I feel as though I made them up, and they take on the power of parable in my mind. One of my earliest memories is of flying a kite with my father. I always thought that one of the reasons this memory was so striking was that it was just the two of us. I have two older sisters, a younger brother, and a younger sister, so most of my childhood memories involve some combination of siblings. My mother features prominently as well in most of those memories. She was more involved in the particulars of our day-to-day lives than my father was and it is easy to recall things like the day we went strawberry picking and had strawberry shortcake for dinner, or the time my sisters and I all had chicken pox and we got to eat on t.v. trays in our beds. There are lessons in here as well about the different ways we nurture one another. But, the memory of kite flying with my father stands out, in part, because it is an anomaly. We simply didn’t have many one-on-one moments.

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Running with the Wind

I remember standing in a muddy field on a grey day. I can see big clumps of soil and puddled rainwater. I don’t know if it was spring or fall but certainly it was chilly and damp. I was running along side my father, who gripped the white kite string, waiting for the kite to catch on the wind. He slowed, and handed me the spool of string, and showed me how to hold it. I remember my father telling me, “Cath, don’t let go!” I kept running. The wind slacked and the kite dipped. “Keep going,” he shouted. And I ran. I felt the tug of the kite at the end of the string as the wind buoyed it once again and my heart lurched with joy. And somehow, I let go. My father sprinted after the string, splashing through mud, trying to catch it. That’s where the memory ends for me. I never knew if he caught it. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to ask my dad about this sooner. Maybe I was afraid he wouldn’t remember, or that it never even happened and it was really only a dream. But this past Sunday, I asked him. And he remembered. He recalled the same details, the muddy field, and me letting go. As it turns out, he caught the runaway kite, though given that I never retained that portion of the memory, clearly it wasn’t the important part for me. He seemed pleased, remembering. He told me it was in the field behind our house, where we lived when I was about five.

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The Meaning of the Memory

Years later, I find myself drawn in my writing to kite metaphors. In a scene in which a thirteen-year-old girl experiences her first kiss and is developing feelings for a boy for the first time, I wrote: “Nora thought of the way Ben’s fingers curved around hers, wondered what her fingers thought as they leaned against his knobby knuckles. It was a relief to be here, connected to Ben. She felt like a kite on a string, and she felt like the string, too, safe within his grasp, yet soaring above him. At home, she drifted around everyone, but never felt anchored.”

For years, I thought that this was the ideal, to feel as though we are both kite and string, to feel both grounded and free. I think I’ve looked for this in my adult relationships, never realizing until now that I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling I had as a child, of being both safe and buoyantly free, the string securely held, the kite catching in the wind. And in the past few days, maybe simply because I talked with my father about the memory, I’ve realized something else: As a parent, this is what I’ve tried to create for my children—a sense that they are secure and safe and taken care of, and at the same time, that they are free to be who they are, to explore what are always becoming, that there is always possibility and joy, hope and freedom. It was what my parents tried to do for me and for my siblings. And because there was such a foundational sense of peace in that upbringing, not only did I try and create it for my own children, I also sought it elsewhere, perhaps where I didn’t need to. Perhaps even, where I shouldn’t have, that is, I looked everywhere else but within myself.

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I realize now that it is something I needed to be cultivating within myself all along. Perhaps it was only after my marriage ended, and after I tried to resurrect a relationship from the past, that I was able to finally begin to seek that sense of peace within myself. And in many ways, I have found it. Some days I might have to look harder than others, but now I know what I’m looking for. I know how to be the kite. I know how to be the string. Though I might feel untethered at times, I know the way back to myself. Though some days I can’t find the breeze, and can’t feel that joyful buoyant freedom, on other days I know I can get there. I know how to wait and when to run and how let joy take hold.

Listening and Learning

Perhaps learning this lesson is one of the reasons that the relationship I’m in now feels so stable and calm and exhilarating. It isn’t because I found someone who makes me feel like kite and string. It is because I am not looking for him to do that. I am free of the expectation that someone else will make me feel the way I want to feel. I entered into the relationship with a greater sense of wholeness than I ever had before, and with the knowledge that I am already enough. I can run fast enough and hold on securely enough to usually keep the kite in the air. And if I trip, or the wind dies down, I know how to fly, and that I can try again, in another moment or another day. Because he is in the same place, we are able to enjoy security and freedom, stability and joy, together, side by side.

The best part of all this is that we intuit these lessons even when we can’t always articulate what we’ve learned. I don’t think my father had a list of things he wanted to make sure he taught me before I left home. He and my mother were guided by their own experiences and did the best they could, as we all do. Sometimes, as we are running along, trying to hold on to the string and keep the kite in the air, we simply have to listen, to pay attention to the memories that bubble up within us and ask, why this, why now?

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

 

 

 

The Alchemy of Experience

By Catherine DiMercurio

Walking down South University in Ann Arbor with the U of M tour guide, our group of admitted students and their parents files past a row of children, who have descended from their yellow school bus to the sidewalk. Parent volunteers and a teacher herd the youngsters into a straight line. They are perhaps second or third graders—small, wide-eyed, wearing brightly colored jackets, the reds and yellows bursts of color like poppies against the grey streetscape. And here we are, another group of parents shepherding our children, trying to keep being what we are—a presence that can still shape and guide and protect them—though within a few short months they won’t even live with us anymore. It’s easy to see how fast it goes.

We all knew it, how quickly it was happening. We did what we were supposed to do, and didn’t take anything for granted, and cherished every moment, good and bad, every first and every fever, every struggle, every tear, every belly laugh and broken heart and broken bone. We still couldn’t will time to go any slower.

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I’m here with my daughter, the focus of our attention all day—how are you doing? are you excited? maybe this is where you’ll live—and my son, and their father. It’s been a long while, since the four of us have spent any amount of time together, and that isn’t lost on any of us. But the day unfolds pleasantly despite its potential for awkwardness, and more than once I think, look how far we’ve come. I wonder if the children think about that, or if they relax and accept this as a new normal. Before the divorce, the four of us visited Ann Arbor on many occasions. It is where our story began, where my ex-husband and I met. Now, what is equally prominent in my mind is how many other stories began when I attended U of M as well—friendships that remain an important part of my life, that buoyed me through dark times, and quite simply, my own story. When I started at U of M, it was the first time in my life I’d truly been away from my parents and siblings, the first time I began to see myself as more than a part of that family unit, as someone whole and separate.

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After we pass that row of children, part of my mind remains fixed in two pasts. It is as if being here has unwound several threads in my brain. I follow myself down one path, remembering myself as a freshman. And I also recall parenting my daughter when she was a second grader, spirited and smart and seemingly always eager for whatever was next. I look up and see she’s gotten ahead of me. Glancing past the little ones, I spot her French braids and her black windbreaker and I manage to move myself forward into now once again. But the day’s journey into the past isn’t over. Before long I find myself in my old dorm, Mosher-Jordan. It’s been renovated, but much of it still looks like it did in 1988 when I first moved in. The building is an old brick one, warm and inviting. Oddly, it is when I see the staircase that a flood of memories come back to me—specifically, traipsing up and down the tiled steps to the cafeteria where I worked. I know that living in this dorm was transformative for my ex-husband as well. Though we knew each other when we lived here, we didn’t date until long after we had both moved out of the dorm. I suspect that he is coping with a flood of memory as well. He, too, made life-long friendships here, and I can appreciate that like me, he’s probably recalling what it was like to be eighteen and at the beginning of it all.

For me, being at the beginning of it all meant discovering what it meant to be me without all the qualifiers—sister of, daughter of. It was incredibly difficult to leave my parents, my sisters, and my brother. I honestly did not know how I was supposed to do it. Though I remember feeling exhilarated, I was also so incredibly sad and terrified. And now, my daughter is preparing to make that same transition, and I’ll experience it from this side of the mother-daughter relationship. I’m sure I’ll probably call my mom and sob and ask her how she did it. How do you leave that dorm room? I console myself with the fact that I have a few months to get ready.

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For a long while, the question that percolated through much of my writing centered on the question of whether we become more or less who we truly are as we accumulate experience. Do we start out as our “true” selves and lose that identity along the way, or does what happens to us in life continue to add on to who we are. For some time, I’ve been trying to figure out what felt wrong about that way of looking at things. Something occurred to me though during this last trip to Ann Arbor. I realized: I’m not the sum of all the emotions and experiences that have brought me here. It isn’t about addition or subtraction—I didn’t become more me or less me because of things that have happened to me, or how I responded to them. I have become, and continue to become, who I am in each moment. It’s not math. It’s more like chemistry. Life is transformative and in many ways nonlinear, and there is mystery and magic to it, so maybe it’s more accurate to say that the process of identity-shaping is more like alchemy than anything else.

Love breaks your heart and mends it and breaks it again in a different place. Sometimes in the same place. Parenting makes it feel as though this process is happening with each heartbeat. By some alchemy our hearts remain completely whole and completely broken at the same time and we continue to love and grow, though each breath is another goodbye. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath